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The Black Death, Bubonic Plague, The Pestilence, The Great Mortality

The Plague is an acute, severe infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is found in fleas and wild rodents such as rats, squirrels, chipmunks, or prairie dogs1Bing research also, human lice2BBC news: Black Death ‘spread by humans not rats’ – BBC News. The plague can cause 10% mortality with treatment, or 30-90% if untreated and there are still, in the twenty-first century 650 cases reported a year worldwide.

Flea bites carry the disease into the lymphatic system, through which it makes its way to the lymph nodes. Here the bacteria multiply and form swellings called buboes, from which the term Bubonic Plague is derived 3Wikipedia, Bubo, After three or four days the bacteria enter the bloodstream and infect organs such as the spleen and the lungs. The patient will then normally die after a few days4The Science Museum: Bubonic plague: the first pandemic | Science Museum. A different strain of the disease is Pneumonic Plague, where the bacteria become airborne and enter directly into the patient’s lungs. This strain is far more virulent, as it spreads directly from person to person. These types of infection probably both played a significant part in the Black Death, while a third strain was rarer, this is the Septicaemic Plague, where the flea bite carries the bacteria directly into the blood stream, and death occurs very rapidly5Wikipedia, Black Death,

It was also named the Black Death, there are many different reasons for calling it that, none of which is really conclusive. The most convincing is that the bubo “may turn back and necrotic, rotting away the surrounding tissue”6The Science Museum: Bubonic plague: the first pandemic | Science Museum. Other names used world-wide were The Pestilence, the Great Mortality, or just The Plague.

In 1346 and until 1353 The Black Death raged across Afro-Eurasia. It was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, resulting in the deaths of 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The first known case of plague in England was a seaman who arrived at Weymouth, Dorset, from Gascony in June 13487The Black Death, 1347, George Deaux, Weybright and Talley, New York, 1969, p. 117. By autumn, the plague had reached London, and by summer 1349 it covered the entire country, before subsiding in December. Research in the early twentieth century revised the previous estimates and a figure of 40–60 percent of the population is now widely accepted8World Health Organization (November 2014). “Plague Fact sheet N°267”. On its return to England, plague caused the death around 20% of the population. And then it recurred intermittently throughout the 14th and 15thcenturies, but with less drastic effect. As in other European cities of the period, the plague was endemic in 17th-century London. There were 30,000 deaths due to the plague in 1603, 35,000 in 1625, and 10,000 in 16369Wikipedia, Bubo,

Those of a superstitious nature were concerned when in late 1664, a bright comet was seen in the sky10Wikipedia, Great Plague of London Then in 1665 the Great Plague of London erupted, at the same time badly affecting France, where they suffered 2,500,000 deaths between 1600 and 1670, and later in Russia in 1770, claiming between 52,000 and 100,000 lives in Moscow alone. There are neither hypotheses nor scientific reasons for these occurrences nor how or why the plagues diminished11Wikipedia, Bubo, From the C18 onwards the plague has risen and fallen all around the world, notably in China C19, from there to Hong Kong and via various trade routed to India and the United States12CNN: A History of the Plague in China Its latest incarnation (as of 2021) was in Madagascar in 2017 where it infected thousands and killed 170.

The Great Plague of London, 1665 to 1666, the last major epidemic of the Second Pandemic, was first noticed in St Giles-in-the-Field in 1665 when, in May, 43 people died, then in July 1,7036 lives were lost and one month later there were 31,159, approximately 15% of the population!13Historic UK The Great Plague 1665 – the Black Death ( Incoming ships bound for London were held on Canvey Island initially for 30 days, a trentine from the Italian trentino , but this was extended to 40 days, quarantino. (hence quarantine)14US National Library of Medicine

Those who could afford it left the city, the King, Charles II, and his court were established in Oxford. As more and more people left London, concern was raised by the villagers outside of the city who would no longer accept the ‘certificate of good health’ issued and signed by the Lord Mayor! The refugees were driven off the roads, had to travel cross-country and were forced to live rough and subsist on scavenging or theft! The organisation of the larger towns and cities did not lend themselves to good hygiene or cleanliness with their open drains, animal dung and slops thrown out on to the roadways; so, it is no wonder that once a plague was present it had no difficulty in spreading far and wide.

The infection spread out around the country with York being badly affected. Eyam, a village in the Derbyshire Dales was infected when a traveller brought a box of laundry infected with fleas which introduced the plague to the area. Rector Mompesson persuaded the villagers to stay in their village in order to prevent spreading the disease. Their needs were transmitted to neighbouring communities who delivered the supplies to the edge of their village and the coins in payment were left in water so as to not pass on the contagion (it was variously believed that vinegar would  stop contamination so sometimes payments were put in a bucket, or a depression at the foot of the village cross, filled with vinegar.  805 of Eyam’s villagers died, including the Rector’s wife, but they contained the infection. By late Autumn, the plague reduced radically country-wide, maybe because the fleas died in the colder weather.

At that time, bubonic plague was a much-feared disease, but its cause was not understood. Blame was put on, emanations from the earth, “pestilential effluvia”, unusual weather, sickness in livestock, abnormal behaviour of animals or an increase in the numbers of moles, frogs, mice, or flies15James Leasor The Plague and the Fire. 1962. For most of the occurrences of the Plague the medical profession had no real knowledge, treatment, or medicines to combat it. Various therapies were used including sweating, bloodletting, forced vomiting, and urinating to treat patients infected with the plague. When buboes arose bloodletting could be performed on the same side as the bubo. Sweating was encouraged by administering medicines such as Mithridate, Venice-Treacle, Matthiolus, Bezoar-Water, Serpentary Roots and Electuarium de Ovo. Among the more weird practices was the use of pigeons when treating swellings which were white in appearance and deep. They were anointed with Oil of Lillies or Camomil and when the swelling rose to a head and was red in appearance, it was broken with the use of a feather from a young pigeon’s tail. The feather was held to the swelling and would draw out the venom. However, if the swelling diminished and became black in appearance, the physician had to be cautious when drawing the cold from the swelling. If it were too late to treat, they would take the young pigeon, cut it from breast to back, break it open and apply the pigeon (while still alive) over the swelling16The Science Museum: Bubonic plague: the first pandemic | Science Museum.

In the early days of The Plague the authorities were by becoming aware, and afraid, of any epidemic and very quickly after there had been three official cases in April the Privy Council acted to introduce household quarantine. Justices of the Peace in Middlesex were instructed to investigate any suspected cases and to shut up the house if it was confirmed. Shortly after, a similar order was issued by the King’s Bench to the City and Liberties. Any house where someone had died from plague would be locked up and no one allowed to enter or leave for 40 days. A riot broke out in St. Giles when the first house was sealed up; the crowd broke down the door and released the inhabitants, the rioters caught were punished severely. As the infections continued to worsen instructions were given to build ‘pest-houses’, which were essentially isolation hospitals built away from other people where the sick could be cared for (or stay until they died)17Bell, Walter George. (1951). Belinda Hollyer (ed.). The great Plague in London (Folio Society ed.).

In the city, the Lord Mayor issued a proclamation that all householders must ‘diligently clean the streets outside their property’, which was the householder’s responsibility, not a state one (the city employed scavengers and rakers to remove the worst of the mess)18Bell, Walter George. (1951). Belinda Hollyer (ed.). The great Plague in London (Folio Society ed.).Thinking that plague, or its transmission, could be linked to animals the City Corporation ordered a cull of dogs and cats, which may have exacerbated the situation by taking away a method of killing the rats! Then because of the belief in  ‘miasmas’ and a concern of ‘bad air’ they built and maintained large bonfires in the streets and instructed they be kept burning19James Leasor, The Plague and the Fire, 1962.

A view of the mental anguish the ‘common citizen’ was experiencing can, to some extent, be understood from the recollection of Thomas Vincent, Puritan minister and author who wrote:

It was in the month of May that the Plague was first taken notice of; our Bill of Mortality did let us know but of three which died of the disease in the whole year before; but in the beginning of May the bill tells us of nine…fear quickly begins to creep upon peoples hearts; great thoughts and discourse there is in Town about the Plague, and they cast in their minds whether they should go if the Plague should increase. Yet when the next weeks Bill signifieth to them the disease from nine to three their minds are something appeased; discourse of that subject cools; fears are hushed, and hopes take place, that the black cloud did but threaten, and give a few drops; but the wind would drive it away. But when in the next Bill the number of the dead by the Plague is mounted from three to fourteen, and in the next to seventeen, and in the next to forty-three, and the disease begins so much to increase, and disperse. Now secure sinners begin to be startled, and those who would have slept at quiet still in their nests, are unwillingly awakened20Thomas Vincent, ‘Gods Terrible Voice in the City’ 1667.

Samuel Pepys also recorded life and the Plague. June 7th, 1665 he wrote:

“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”

It was believed that because no tobacconist had been reported to die of the plague, smoking or chewing tobacco might be beneficial21James Leasor, The Plague and the Fire, 1962.

And on the 18th of August:

two shops in three, if not more, [are] generally shut up”

16th October:

“But, Lord! How empty the streets are and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets full of sores; and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick… And they tell me that, in Westminster, there is never a physician and but one apothecary left, all being dead.”22Samuel Pepys, [a href=””>

Thomas Vincent wrote:

“It was very dismal to behold the red crosses, and read in great letters “LORD, HAVE MERCY UPON US” on the doors, and watchmen standing before them with halberds…people passing by them so gingerly, and with such fearful looks as if they had been lined with enemies in ambush to destroy them…a man at the corner of Artillery-wall, that as I judge, through the dizziness of his head with the disease, which seized upon him there, had dasht his face against the wall; and when I came by, he lay hanging with his bloody face over the rails, and bleeding upon the ground…I went and spoke to him; he could make no answer, but rattled in the throat, and as I was informed, within half an hour died in the place. It would be endless to speak of what we have seen and heard, of some in their frenzy, rising out of their beds, and leaping about their rooms; others crying and roaring at their windows; some coming forth almost naked, and running into the streets…scarcely a day passed over my head for, I think, a month or more together, but I should hear of the death of some one or more that I knew. The first day that they were smitten, the next day some hopes of recovery, and the third day, that they were dead.”

By late Autumn, the death toll was lessening and in February 1666 King Charles and his entourage, [a href=””> There are no definitive numbers but City Records state that 68,596 died but the actual number of deaths is suspected to have exceeded 100,000 out of a total population estimated at 460,,